Faux grouper fine doubles

As menu dupes persist, regulators hope harsher penalties will help serve up the real thing.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published June 1, 2007

Amid continuing reports of fake fish on restaurant menus, Florida regulators announced Thursday they are doubling the minimum fine on people caught cheating.

First-time offenders will now risk at least a $500 administrative fine, up from $250, Holly Benson, secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said in a news release.

"I love grouper, so when I order grouper, I expect to eat grouper," Benson said. "Floridians ought to be able to trust restaurant owners, and these increased penalties will help us ensure that the food we eat is the food we ordered."

Although state inspectors occasionally catch restaurants serving bogus crab or tuna, grouper is by far the most common target of substitution, state records indicate.

Of 168 restaurants cited by the DBPR for menu substitution between Jan. 1, 2006, and Feb. 28, 2007, 70 percent of the citations were for fake grouper.

The most common substitutes were varieties of Asian catfish known as pangasius, basa, ponga, panga, swai and sutchi.

Seafood substitution has been a hot media topic since August, when the St. Petersburg Times reported that DNA tests showed that 6 of the 11 "grouper" meals served at Tampa Bay area restaurants were actually other types of fish.

The Florida Attorney General's Office and other newspapers and television stations subsequently tested grouper with similar results. Media outlets around the country have found fakes for other high-end fish such as red snapper and mahi mahi.

In the Florida tests, many restaurants said they had no idea their grouper was not real. They said that they had paid for imported grouper and that box labels and invoices indicated they bought grouper.

Restaurants cited by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation have no such defense.

They advertised grouper on the menu but had no invoices, or other proof, that they had purchased any. Those violators will be fined $500, the department said. It was not clear Thursday what the fines would be for multiple violators.

Florida has more than 40,000 restaurants, and each is supposed to be inspected at least twice a year to see if they are handling food safely.

Are refrigerators cold enough? Are employees washing their hands? Is the kitchen free of vermin?

During these inspections, regulators sometimes check for product substitution as well. If grouper is on the menu, is there real grouper in the kitchen? Does the restaurant have invoices showing it has purchased grouper?

If not, the restaurant will be cited and ultimately fined if it cannot produce a defense.

State inspectors have focused on grouper for more than a year because cheap Asian catfish has been increasingly served as grouper, one of Florida's signature high-end dishes, said Kendall Burkett, head of the regulation department's inspection division.

Although fresh Florida grouper often wholesaled for up to $10 a pound, some restaurants ran all-you-can-eat grouper specials for as low as $7.99.

The rate of substitution has undoubtedly been higher than state citations indicate, Burkett acknowledged.

Inspectors focus primarily on food safety problems that can make diners sick and don't have time to check for all possible menu substitutions.

Depending on the area of the state, inspectors may also focus on different products, he said.

From Jan. 1 through February, the Jacksonville regional office cited 31 restaurants for grouper substitution, plus one snapper substitution, one scallop, two flounder and three crab.

During the same period, Broward County inspectors targeted sushi restaurants, citing none for grouper substitution, but 20 restaurants for switching other fish for white tuna and nine restaurants for fake crab.

With extensive publicity, more restaurants are now switching to fresh Florida grouper and away from imports, which has helped raise the price of real Gulf of Mexico grouper.

That's another reason for doubling the fines when people cheat, the regulation department said. The stakes are getting higher.